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California's driest January on record: Is more water conservation needed?

Last month, parts of California received just 47 percent of average rainfall for this time of year. In some places, snowpack is at just 12 percent of the long-term average.

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    Patchy snow covers a meadow in Phillips, Calif., where the California Department of Water Resources measured the snowpack last Thursday. The reading at Phillips is 2.3 inches of water equivalent – 12 percent of the historic average for this location.
    Max Whittaker/Reuters
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While much of the United States has contended with major storms and snow, California had the driest January in state history.

January is typically California’s wettest month. But this year, parts of the state received just 47 percent of average rainfall for this time of year. And San Francisco had no measurable rain for the entire month, a first since record keeping began in the 1849 Gold Rush.

Last month’s record-low rainfall has deflated hopes that rainstorms in December might have heralded the beginning of an end to the four-year-long drought that has gripped much of the West. And some drought-weary Californians are wondering if the government, the media, and residents could be doing more to ensure that reserves last long enough to sustain the state through another year of drought.

“Californians need to know that the drought continues to be a huge concern, and that we have to do all we can to sustain and improve on the actions we’re taking to conserve water,” says Jennifer Persike, deputy executive director for external affairs of the Association of California Water Agencies. “Every drop we can leave in storage this year means that much more available next year if this drought stretches into a fifth year.”

In some places, snowpack is at just 12 percent of the long-term average, according to the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program. That’s bad news for the state’s farmers, who produce nearly half the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts and depend on snowmelt to kick-start the growing season.

The average peak California snowpack is enough to fill the state's largest reservoir, Shasta Lake, more than three times. That snow melts gradually over the course of months, trickling down mountains into streams and rivers and filling reservoirs in the spring and early summer – just when seasonal demand for irrigation and urban deliveries goes up.

Some political analysts say the government response has been tepid, at best.

“I think other government agencies both local and statewide need to do more retrofitting for those that can’t afford it. Bringing in stuff will reduce usage,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento. “They are just starting and we are three years in [to the drought]. Not enough has been done, when much more could have been.”

Nor have the media been as on top of the issue as it could be, she says.

“We are in an emergency situation and most of the media outlets cover it as if it is something that will pass and it hasn’t,” says Dr. O’Connor. “And if you look at usage patterns with some [cities and agencies] passing new restrictions, usage hasn’t gone down enough – which it would be if it were taken more seriously by media.”

Perhaps hardest hit are farmers in California’s massive Central Valley.

“We are all depressed about the dry January, particularly since we were so hopeful of an El Niño-type event and it didn’t happen,” says veteran farmer John Harris, from the southern Central Valley town of Coalinga.

The drought has exacerbated the state’s long-running water war. Even though voters approved two large water bonds in November, analysts say the federal, state, and local water entities have so far not achieved any needed clarity, leaving the farm sector – which gets 80 percent of the state’s water – in worse shape.

"Last year’s water bond was a small step in the right direction, but the real larger-scale steps needed for a more complete solution have not been seriously discussed,” says Michael Shires, professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. "The short-run result has been a contraction in the state’s critical agriculture sector and a less-reliable-than-ever water supply and infrastructure. The longer-term implications could be devastating to the state’s economy and severe rationing for its urban consumers if both sides cannot find a way to moderate their separate political interests."

Some forecasters are predicting the January dry spell could end soon, with a vast plume of tropical moisture now developing over the Pacific, which they say could dump a series of storms starting Thursday.

“There will be rain off and on through Monday,” forecaster Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services told the San Francisco Chronicle. “This next week is much more encouraging than the last five.”

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